Emotion regulation, risk-taking, and experiential learning : a methodological exploration



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Despite adolescence and emerging adulthood being a time of peak physical ability, it is marked by a dramatic increase in morbidity and mortality, primarily driven by poor behavioral and emotional control (Dahl, 2004). Multiple lines of recent research are now focusing on how maturation of decision-making impacts risk-taking, and more specifically, what role emotion regulation plays (Weinberger et al., 2005; Steinberg, 2007). Rather than avoiding risk factors, a call is made for strength and skills-based approaches to risk-taking interventions.
The purpose of the current exploratory study was to assess the efficacy of an experiential learning (EL) intervention designed to increase participants’ emotion regulation skills and decrease risk-taking. Twenty-eight emerging adults participated; 15 were assigned to the experimental group and presented with two separate sessions on emotional regulation and risk-taking using EL methodology (low and high element activities). The control group’s 13 participants were presented with two separate powerpoint lectures on emotion regulation and risk-taking. Participants’ difficulty with emotion regulation and risk-taking were assessed prior to the first session, between sessions, and one week following the second session. Qualitative interviews assessed participants’ understanding of how emotions and risk-taking are connected and process measures assessed the emotional impact of the intervention activities.
While hypotheses were not confirmed, results revealed a significant decline in difficulty with emotion regulation across time for all participants. Unexpectedly, however, there were no significant differences between the groups on emotional regulation and the group x time interaction was also not significant. Additionally, risk-taking significantly increased across time. The control group reported more risk-taking across the three time periods than the experimental group. The time x group interaction approached significance [F(2,56) =2.68, p =.07], showing consistent increases for the control group but relatively low levels for the experimental group. Qualitative data revealed that participants had clear notions of how emotions drive risk-taking, how the thrill of risk- taking can be used to displace negative feelings, and how one’s need to connect to others can lead to risk-taking. Experimental group participants demonstrated a shift from global thinking about emotions and risk-taking to more specific thoughts about emotional awareness as a key skill.